Battle Royal, by Ralph Ellison

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In the 1940‘s racial segregation gripped southern American life. The notion of separating blacks from whites created immense tension. Separate water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, etc. were variables that helped keep races apart. “Jim Crow” laws in the south were intended to prevent blacks from voting. These laws, combined with the segregated educational system, instilled the sense that blacks were “separate” but not equal (174). Many people of color weren‘t able to survive through this time period because of the actions of whites. One individual who overcame the relentless struggles was Ralph Ellison. Ellison, a famous author, depicted racial segregation in the 1940’s through a fictional short story entitled “Battle Royal.” Battle Royal symbolized the actions of what “other” people became accustomed to. Blacks were thought to be socially inferior and live in the shadows of whites. The idea which Ellison uses to paint “Battle Royal” consists of that when one sex or race treats another as an object or animal, both become dehumanized (174). Ellison’s use of hidden meanings conveys his theme more effectively.

Literary critic, Norman German, creates an interesting spin on “Battle Royal.” Published in the CLA (College Language Association) journal in 1988, German emphasizes Ellison’s use of animal imagery which graphically stresses his theme (German). The narrator (the main character) struggles with his grandfather’s dying words, “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth.” (The animal symbolism in the quote through his dying grandfather lived his life in the hands of “whites.”) The narrator, although he strongly disagrees, has his grandfather’s words embedded in his mind. The constants in the “battle royal” are portrayed as foreign creatures as they are herded “like cattle” into the servant’s elevator. German believes, that because the rich white men treat the black men as animals and the naked white woman as a sexual object, it ironically reduces the white men to animals:

One man watches the woman dance and holds his arms up like an intoxicated panda, winding his belly in a slow and obscene grind. The creature was completely hypnotized…The men then sink their beefy fingers into her flesh…Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding ove...

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...ey really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize up on the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the “outsider.” Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed and easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term “n*gger”--it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.

Works Cited

West, Cornel. Race Matters. New York: Random House, Inc, 1994

O’Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980

German, Norman. “Imagery in the “Battle Royal”. CLA Journal Vol. XXXI(2001): 394-399. 11 June 1988

Dyson, Michael E. “Ellison’s landmark turns 50.” Chicago Sun-Times on the Web 19 Feb. 2002. Nov. 2003

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